It was, by any standards, something of a shock to discover that the British apparently care more about the plight of maltreated donkeys than maltreated women.
The three main charities for victims of rape, domestic violence and abuse have a combined annual income of £17m, according to a report by New Philanthropy Capital. A single donkey sanctuary in Devon received donations of £20m during 2006. Interviewed about these findings, Megan Pacey of the Institute of Fundraising commented that there was something in our nature that is more concerned about animals suffering than humans. "The whole British animal-loving public is partly what drives that," she said.
Two days later, another rich charity, the RSPCA, revealed that last year the British animal-loving public abandoned 23 per cent more of its pets than in 2006. Excuses for chucking the family pet out into the street included "my dog hurts my leg when she wags her tail" and "my cat doesn't match my new carpet".
There is something rather strange and skewed about British attitudes towards animals. Certainly the idea that we are an animal-loving nation needs to be consigned to the dustbin for mindless, inaccurate clichés. As a people, we have no greater fondness for animals than most of our European neighbours. What we do have, and in spectacular abundance, is a confused sentimentality towards animals. Many of those who like to have pets around them see them as living, breathing accessories. Pets are there to make them feel stronger, nicer, more decorative or interesting than they really are.
A certain amount of donkey-bashing took place in the media when New Philanthropy Capital published its report. Its comparison with women's charities turned out to be a clever, guilt-inducing headline-grabber, when really it was pointing up the most unsurprising of facts. Good causes which reflect the pain and humiliation of adults in our own society are tough to market; donkeys, belaboured, mistreated and cute, are considerably easier.
But the sneers directed at the residents of the Devon Donkey Sanctuary were misplaced. Much of the charity's money goes on its work around the world in mobile clinics, veterinary support and refuges for animals in developing countries – animals whose health is often essential to a family's economic wellbeing.
What estimable organisations like the Brooke Hospital for Animals are doing is more than relieving suffering; they are engaged in a campaign of international education about animal welfare and showing why it matters. In that sense, they are as much a charity for humans as for animals.
The idea behind that work is straightforward. When a family, or a society, treats its animals with respect and decency, it becomes saner, kinder and probably more productive. In this context, Britain, for all its generosity towards animal charities and its smug belief that it is a nation of animal-lovers, is also in urgent need of education.
Double standards have been around so long that they are no longer noticeable. The same public that gurgles with pleasure when a singing dog appears on Britain's Got Talent accepts – demands, in a commercial sense – deplorable and inhumane standards of meat production. There are hedgehog refuge centres across the country, but we transport animals hundreds of miles in cramped containers to be slaughtered. Pets are seen as amusing diversions until they become difficult or expensive, at which point they are abandoned.
The charity business reflects this picture. It is comforting to think of our money-making donkeys happier partly because their misery in the past is so remote from our experience. The feel-good factor is an essential part of the impulse to give.
Elsewhere in Europe, the treatment of domestically kept animals is taken rather more seriously. Last week, the Swiss announced that owning pets involves certain basic obligations which will now be enshrined in law. Dog-owners will be obliged to complete a practical and theoretical course on the treatment of their animals. Anglers will be instructed on how to catch fish humanely. Pets belonging to what are deemed "social species", a group which includes guinea pigs and budgerigars, will not be kept in isolation. Even goldfish will be protected by the law.
Goldfish, guinea pigs, the Swiss: it all sounds irresistibly funny, but these ideas are sensible. Pet laws may be unpopular and seem officious, but at least they encourage people to start thinking differently about what having power and control over another sentient being actually means. Once they get that right, other attitudes will also fall into place.